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By Lauren Gui

Jonathan_Franzen.jpg

Jonathan Franzen does not disappoint.

As he takes the stage, Franzen pauses for a few moments to gaze quizzically around the room before wryly addressing the crowd: “This is a grand hall.” Instantly, I take a fond liking to him, especially since Franzen’s sentiments about Twitter beautifully encapsulate my own: “Twitter is unspeakably irritating.”

In person, the author of five internationally bestselling novels is nothing like the patronising, somewhat misanthropic persona that critics have reputed him to be. Wearing his trademark black thick-rimmed glasses, Franzen generously answered Anna Funder’s questions about his latest novel, Purity, with his characteristically wry and awkward charm. Purity is a darkly humorous novel that is emotionally raw at heart as it explores themes of moral absolutivism, secrecy, power and the social significance of the Internet in a consciously self-aware voice. Central to its plot is one of the four protagonists, Purity “Pip” Tyler, whose slightly neurotic and reclusive mother steadfastly refuses to reveal any information about her name or age. Recently graduated from college, Pip is in considerable student debt and seeks her father whom she has never met, for compensation. After accepting an internship at The Sunshine Project, a political counterpart to WikiLeaks, with the complex and charismatic Julian Assange-like Andreas Wolfe, Pip learns that all secrets come at a price.

When asked about Wolfe’s treatment of feminism in Purity as a publicity stunt or matter of conviction, Franzen replied: “Well, the negative view is that there is something skeezy of men who preen themselves on their feminism. My personal view? This is a guy who eventually becomes the image that he himself has created on the Internet. It’s as if he is no longer a human being. This is a slight exaggeration from the situation but is capable of being extrapolated from a situation at that end. And once you become obsessed with your image, your motivations for doing something become unclear – are you doing it because you want to be liked?” He adds: “I hope that if you read the book, you will not go away thinking poorly of the Internet because it serves a kind of heroic function in the world. The only reason at all that I got so involved in critiquing it is because I got so annoyed at bull****, and all of the hype about this marvelous world that is being created, which we’re all connected by.”

To Franzen’s credit, he responded graciously to a questioner whose query began with the insinuation that he ought to “reign in” his plots, audaciously ending with: “Did your publishers ever suggest that your narratives were becoming too complex, too much like airport fiction?”

As the room let out an appalled “O”, he replied good-naturedly: “I hear what you are saying. And you picked a clever way to ask it. That particular scenario is unlikely because I think it’s actually more likely that I would be asked if I really wanted to have that level of psychological violence written down on these pages and that’s not really an airport fiction thing. I do. I’ll just take your question and run with it for a bit, and say that…I like good airport fiction. Does anyone remember le Carre’s novel, The Little Drummer Girl? It’s a knockout book! It’s very, very, heavily plotted, but it’s not a stupid book. It’s a smart book. First of all, it’s a noisy world. And there’s something to be said about a story that draws and holds you in, that makes you deaf to the noise whilst you’re in it. And I do aspire to that.”

Another question posed was how Franzen managed to accurately convey thoughts of characters who were different to him in terms of sex, gender and racial identity, and if Franzen ever worried about “getting it wrong and revealing far too much about himself?”. The room let out a laugh, Franzen included: “Yes, of course I worry about that. That’s why I do…self-publish. Risk-free writing is writing that is not worth reading. But you also don’t want to be insane, and take a risk that has no safety nets. I have a safety net that consists of a circle of trustworthy readers, who will tell me what I’ve got down wrong. For this book, two out of those three readers were women, and I did get things wrong. I would not want to stop taking that risk. It is important to imagine your way into subjectivities that aren’t your own. The baggage of history is uncomfortable because of the history of sexism and patriarchy, but I have to persist with that. It’s a matter of principle for me.”

I can hardly wait to see what The Great American Novelist next comes up with.

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